Shinzo Abe

Japanese officials doctored documents at heart of cronyism scandal, deleting references to PM Abe, wife, minister

Finance Minister Taro Aso admits that his staff changed records related to the below-market sale of government land to a school operator with links to the Abes, but says he will not resign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 12:23pm

Japan’s Finance Ministry acknowledged on Monday that it doctored land-sale documents in a widening scandal linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife that has rattled his government and caused its support ratings to slide.

Abe quickly apologised on behalf of ministry officials but did not mention his wife, Akie Abe, or her suspected role in the scandal. But documents seen by the Reuters news agency showed that the names of Akie Abe, Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso had been deleted from them.

“People are looking critically at the developments, and I take it seriously,” Prime Minister Abe said, promising a thorough investigation.

The altered documents relate to the 2016 sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka at one-seventh of the appraised value, and the involvement of Akie Abe, who supported the school and its ultra-nationalistic education policy.

In a parliamentary hearing on Monday, Finance Ministry officials confirmed that a reference to Akie Abe having recommended the land deal was deleted from a document after the scandal surfaced.

It said another document originally noted that the school operator was involved with a powerful pro-Abe political lobby, Nippon Kaigi, but that comment was also deleted.

A phrase calling the land deal “exceptional”, as well as the names of several other influential lawmakers who were implicated but have denied involvement, were also deleted, the ministry said.

Aso told a separate news conference that several officials at his ministry’s division in charge of the sale altered the documents to make them conform with testimony in parliament by official Nobuhisa Sagawa, who was then head of the division.

Sagawa later was promoted to National Tax Agency chief in what critics alleged was a reward for stonewalling the questioning. He resigned last Friday, while another official linked to the scandal reportedly committed suicide.

Sagawa has also acknowledged destroying documents.

Aso said the investigation found 14 documents were altered between February and April last year.

He denied there had been any political pressure, but declined to disclose where the instructions to delete the names came from.

“It has become clear that there was a cover-up and falsification,” opposition Democratic Party leader Yuichiro Tamaki told reporters. He said Aso should resign and parliament hold hearings on the matter.

Aso, who is also deputy premier and whose backing is vital for Abe, apologised for his ministry’s actions, but said that he had no intention of stepping down.

The scandal, which surfaced a year ago, has smouldered despite a major election victory by Abe in July as opposition lawmakers continued to scrutinise the case. It erupted again in recent weeks after a major newspaper reported that it found evidence the ministry altered records after the scandal broke.

Yasunori Kagoike, then head of Moritomo Gakuen, bought the land to build a junior school where Abe’s wife briefly served as honorary principal. The Abes are both known to have supported the school’s nationalistic philosophy of education.

Opposition lawmakers claim political pressure was involved in the land sale, but Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Opposition leaders demanded that Abe’s wife and Sagawa testify and threatened to boycott parliamentary sessions if they did not. Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry “shakes the foundation of Japan’s democracy”.

The conservative Yomiuri newspaper and public broadcaster NHK both reported declines in support ratings for Abe’s cabinet in polls released on Monday. Outside parliament, dozens of protesters demanded cabinet members resign.

Additional reporting by Reuters